A $100 dollar and a Rs 10 banknote
A $100 bill and a Rs 10 banknote | Photo: Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg
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In the past, India has undertaken expensive foreign currency-denominated borrowing from NRIs through Resurgent India Bonds, India Millennium Deposit bonds and dollar-denominated deposits. This time, the government is proposing to issue a small sovereign bond.

The risk is small, considering the size of the borrowing, the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework and the fiscal responsibility law. The government and the Reserve Bank of India need to primarily manage risk through sticking to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act and inflation-targeting frameworks.

In addition, the government should set up a Public Debt Management Agency (PDMA), which takes a comprehensive view of the government’s debt, its costs, currency denomination, tenor and time of issuance.

Why foreign currency borrowing is risky

The main difference between a dollar-denominated loan, as proposed in the Union Budget speech, and a rupee-denominated loan, is in who holds the risk of rupee depreciation. When an Indian borrower takes a loan in dollars, she has to pay back in dollars. If, in the meantime, the value of the dollar versus the rupee changes, the loss or gain accrues to the borrower. In addition to the interest rate, the borrower needs to pay back more if the rupee weakens. The borrower is ‘exposed’ to currency risk. For this reason, borrowing in domestic currency is expected to be safer than borrowing in foreign currency.

But risks can be managed. For example, foreign currency borrowing of private borrowers can be made safer by ‘hedging’ one’s exposure. It is possible there is a natural hedge. If one is an exporter who earns in dollars, then even when the exporter borrows in dollars, she is not putting her balance sheet at risk. On the other hand, if the borrower is a domestic builder, her earnings are in rupees, and if the rupee depreciates sharply, she may not be able to pay back the loan.

Another way of hedging currency exposure is to buy derivatives. There may be someone who may be willing to enter into a contract with you, at a price, to supply you dollars at today’s exchange rate. The cost for the loan is now the interest rate and the cost of hedging.

If the government of India were to borrow from international markets, it will have currency risk. So, for example, if it borrows at 2 per cent per annum in dollar terms in international markets, and if the rupee weakens by 2 percent per annum, then in rupee terms, it will pay back 4 per cent in rupee terms.


Also read: Borrowing abroad is bold, but India first needs to produce data that lenders can trust


Uncertainty over exchange rates

A number of factors play a role in the movement of exchange rates. A purchasing power parity model may forecast that the rupee will depreciate by the difference in the inflation rates for India and the US. The Balassa-Samuelson model may predict that because of faster productivity increases in India, it may appreciate. Some may argue that higher imports and slower exports will make the rupee weaken. Others may feel that the inflow of foreign investment into India will keep the rupee strong.

One possibility is that to get away from the uncertainty, India should do ‘masala bonds’, i.e. borrow in rupees. Interest rates for rupee borrowing are higher, at around 7 per cent. Alternatively, we could let foreigners buy more Indian government bonds in Indian markets. This way, we would know exactly how much we will be paying in rupee terms.

Three necessary reforms

In recent years, India has adopted an inflation-targeting monetary policy and the FRBM Act. The fear of large depreciations is based on the fear that the government and the RBI will not respect these mandates. As a consequence, governments will be profligate and borrow a lot, inflation will be high and the rupee will depreciate.

In addition to the other problems that will be created by such policies, foreign borrowing will add more problems of India defaulting on its foreign debt. Even though the government is currently saying it will borrow only a very small part of the debt in dollars, the fear is that it will be irresponsible if it “tastes” cheap foreign capital, and over time, it will borrow much more in dollars.

These fears are based on confusion in fiscal data, off-budget borrowing and missed revenue targets of the government on the one hand, and the belief that the effectiveness of monetary policy in India is limited.

Three key reforms are necessary. First, the government needs to bring much greater transparency to the budget. Two, the RBI needs to improve the transmission of monetary policy. And three, the government needs to set up a professional Public Debt Management Agency that manages various aspects of its debt, including how much should be borrowed in foreign currency.

If the government borrows in foreign currency, it has to manage risks by allowing the RBI to stick to its mandate of inflation targeting, and by itself sticking to FRBM targets, in both letter and spirit. Greater trust in the country’s data will reduce risk of panic by foreigners or sudden outflows.

The pressure of being watched by the world is a good commitment device. A prudent and responsible government can actually gain by having international bond markets as its watch-dog.

The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.


Also read: Risks flagged by economists, RBI to review Modi govt’s foreign bond sale plan


 

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2 Comments Share Your Views

2 COMMENTS

  1. India can borrow in Foreign Currencies,especially from he Eurozone [ that is in Euro[ to IMMEDIATELY pay back the US Dollars 105 Billion Loan at 9.5 percent.[This is a varying rate and India had been charged around 16 percent in the 1970s].India’s US Dollars 138 Billion US Treasury Holdings feteches a mere 2 pwercent.Thaat is India is losing more than rs 50000 Crores per annum by the carry Trade.Since the World bank is owned y the USA,mostly,India literally is giving rs 50000 Crores from 2014 to the USA,just like that..Since the World Bank loan in US Dollars the Loan from the Eurozone will face almost same Currency Fluctuation risk as the World banl one.India should also stop taking Loans from the World bank in future at such HIGH rates.
    Similarly in the Bond Issue at 6.5 percent India is losing rs 5000 Crores per annum,viz-a-viz the US Treasury Holdings.
    The Finance Ministry can use Computers to study the LOSSES/GAINS,if any via arbitrage and take appropriate action..

  2. Trust is the basis of public finance, in fact of public governance. Read Ms Remya Nair’s column to understand how profoundly that is missing. What is the point of having an FRBM Act if the CAG informs the Finance Commission that the fiscal deficit for 2018 – 19 is not the reported 3.4% but 5.8%. If someone who has served as CEA says the economy is growing at 4.5%, not the claimed 7%. These are not minor variations, statistical imprecision that can be understood in an economy large parts of which are informal, not fully routed through the banking system. There is something fragrant in the State of Denmark.

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